Is Trump electable? Can Carson nab the GOP presidential nomination? Does Rand Paul have a chance? Is Chris Christie finished — before a voter has voted?
It’s still pre-primary season, and it is worth remembering that — even as we judge candidates on various capacities, including their ability to “handle the media” — one arm of the media possesses potentially the most influence along with too little scrutiny: the pollsters.
They are allegedly the most scientific and objective folks in the industry, with closest ties to actual intellectual disciplines, statistics and political science.
But they are also, willy nilly, political players, not just observers.
Though tasked to provide data on public opinion about matters of importance, they also influence public opinion in several crucial ways:
- By how they phrase poll questions. This is an art, and can be extremely propagandistic. Pollsters can often “get” the information they want — if they want something in particular, perhaps for partisan reasons — by wording those questions carefully.
- By ordering questions in particular ways. The first question sets up a context. The second is then interpreted by those polled in that context. Pollsters can nudge people to reverse their usual opinions by providing an alien context.
- By presenting the results, skewed or not. People are influenced by others. Voting for candidates, especially, partly depends on second-guessing other voters. Few people wish to vote for someone who “cannot win.” Therefore, a published poll result that shows popularity can increase popularity, in a sort of multiplier effect.
Polls and poll results can provide useful information. Hey, I’ve used professional pollsters. But we all have to be cautious . . . remembering that voting one’s conscience is a high-percentage play.
This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.